Arizona State (6-4; 3-4 in Pac-10) hosts UCLA (5-5; 3-4) Saturday at 8:15 p.m. (Fox Sports Net) at Sun Devil Stadium with both schools coming off arguably their best performances of the season. The Sun Devils trounced Washington State 47-14, while the Bruins defeated Oregon State 25-7 at the Rose Bowl.
This weekend's match-up is an interesting one to be sure, considering UCLA beat the same team the Sun Devils struggled mightily against the previous weekend in Corvallis.
Conventional wisdom might suggest that UCLA should then be favored in this game, but they are in fact a 5.5 point underdog.
One significant reason?
While the Bruins are 5-1 at home this season, they are 0-4 on the road.
Furthermore, the home team has not lost in this series since 1996, when Jake Plummer led his teammates in a ferocious second-half comeback to remain unbeaten on their way to an undefeated regular season. UCLA has not won in Tempe since 1994.
Then of course, there is the manner in which Rudy Carpenter and his teammates took apart the Cougars last Saturday.
Though they were undermanned at wide receiver, Carpenter threw for a season-best 339 yards and three long touchdown passes and the Sun Devils displayed a vertical passing attack that had been missing all season. Redshirt freshman Brandon Smith had a 62-yard reception for a touchdown and three catches overall, highlighting the newfound potency.
It would appear likely the Sun Devils will have to duplicate some of that success in the passing game this week, as UCLA is the top-ranked team in the Pac-10 in run defense, allowing just 90.9 yards per game on the ground.
Success from ASU's offensive line, and in particular tackles Brandon Rodd and Julius Orieukwu will be extremely important in this game against two excellent pass rushers, Bruin defensive ends Justin Hickman and Brandon Davis. Carpenter had a lot of time to operate versus the Cougars, but the Bruins like to apply pressure in different ways. ASU coach Dirk Koetter likes the job Oriewkwu and right guard Paul Fanaika do against the pass, and this week will present a supreme challenge, and be one of the key matchups to observe.
Washington State seemed to really bite on the play-action fake by Carpenter and that was set up not by anything shown by the ASU offense in that particular game necessarily, but by the season-long reliance on the run-game.
Part of that was necessitated by a lack of success with the passing attack, especially vertically, but this is the best ASU run game we've seen since Koetter came to Tempe, with Ryan Torain and Keegan Herring providing a terrific one-two punch out of the backfield.
Though it was overshadowed by the exciting aerial assault by Carpenter and his receivers, the run game was again very successful versus the Cougars, racking up 196 net yards on the group, at an average of 4.0 yards-per-carry.
At times this season, teams have been able to cheat in on the Sun Devils, unafraid of the possible downfield threat. The Bruins won't have that luxury in this game, as a result of what happened last week, and that is a major development.
Additionally, the Bruins have not had much success this season at keeping talented tight ends and bigger receivers in check. Zach Miller could be playing in his final home game for the Sun Devils, and he and brother Brent Miller are big targets capable of making high-impact plays downfield.
Getting Jamaal Lewis back and another possible vertical threat in Terry Richardson should only increase the versatility of ASU in this game offensively. Rudy Burgess is expected to be a game-time decision, and he may get snaps on offense as well.
The Bruin defense did an excellent job against Oregon State last weekend, and they'll have to follow suit with a similar performance in this game. It would seem likely that either ASU will have another strong offensive performance, or the Bruins will have their second great defensive showing in as many weeks. The winner could be determined in this regard.
Defensively, the Sun Devils will have a more difficult task than some might believe with backup quarterback Patrick Cowan being very capable as a passer, and also able to create problems if let out of the pocket. The ASU defensive line has made it a point of emphasis this week to keep containment on the edges and prevent Cowan from escaping, especially when there is solid coverage downfield that necessitates him taking off.
It's been a much improved defense for ASU this season, giving up 140 fewer total yards per game than a season ago. A case could reasonably be made that they've only had two mediocre performances this season, against Oregon and Oregon State.
While the Bruins may not have as many explosive weapons as they had a season ago, running back Chris Markey is very competent. Indeed, he is currently third in the conference, averaging 86.3 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry. The Sun Devils are also going to want to keep an eye on Marcus Everett, a physical receiver with the ability to create space and be a crucial possession receiver and red zone target (five touchdown receptions) and Junior Taylor.
We've seen Arizona State have an excellent approach all season, with MIKE linebacker Beau Manutai plugging up the middle on run downs and everyone doing a good job of staying in their gaps. On passing downs, the only glaring weakness at times has been the cornerback spot opposite Justin Tryon, but with Burgess and Chris Baloney out of action again last weekend, Keno Walter-White had one of his better performances of the season.
On special teams, UCLA has one of the top kickers in the conference, Justin Medlock, who is 23 of 27 on the season including 4-of-4 against the Beavers.